Learning to spell in a language with transparent orthography: Distributional properties of orthography and whole-word lexical processing

Paola Angelelli, Chiara Valeria Marinelli, Anna Putzolu, Alessandra Notarnicola, Marika Iaia, Cristina Burani

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We examined how whole-word lexical information and knowledge of distributional properties of orthography interact in children’s spelling. High- versus low-frequency words, which included inconsistently spelled segments occurring more or less frequently in the orthography, were used in two experiments: (a) word spelling; (b) lexical priming of pseudoword spelling. Participants were 1st-, 2nd-, and 4th-grade Italian children. Word spelling showed sensitivity to the distributional properties of orthography in all children: accuracy in spelling uncommon transcription segments emerged progressively as a function of word frequency and schooling. Lexical priming effects emerged as a function of age. When related primes contained an uncommon segment, 2nd- and 4th-graders preferred uncommon segments than common ones in spelling target pseudowords, thus inverting the response trend found in the control condition. A smaller but significant effect was present in 1st- graders, who, unlike 2nd- and 4th-graders, still preferred common segments, only slightly increasing the use of uncommon ones. A larger priming effect emerged for high-frequency primes than low-frequency ones. Results indicate that children learning to spell in a transparent orthography are sensitive to the distributional properties of the orthography. However, whole-word lexical representations are also used, with larger effects in more skilled pupils.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-14
Number of pages14
JournalQuarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Publication statusAccepted/In press - Jan 31 2017


  • Distributional properties of orthography
  • Lexical priming
  • Lexical spelling
  • Spelling acquisition
  • Transparent orthography

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Physiology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Psychology(all)
  • Physiology (medical)


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